If you haven't been to Zero George Café & Bar in a while, it's high time you paid it another visit. What started in 2013 as a tony spot for pre-theater drinks and apps, has drastically upped its game, not only in price (though you can still get delicious appetizers for $14) but in offerings, originality, and creativity. Helmed by the quietly intense Vinson Petrillo, Zero George offers a unique fine-dining experience that falls somewhere between the intimacy of Chez Nous and the gastronomical wizardry of McCrady's.
Perhaps the best advertisement for Zero George is a glimpse through its windows, especially on a cool, drizzling winter's night. At dusk, single votives glow from the ground floor windows of the three-story 1804 house that anchors the sprawling boutique hotel at the corner of George and East Bay streets. The candles illuminate a petite nook of eight to 10 white-clothed tables, each dotted with a single pink rose. You might feel like Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Match Girl" gazing in on the warm dining room filled with couples engaged in conversation as they sip on bespoke cocktails suspended with flecks of gold leaf like "The Goldbug" ($14). Therein you'll see a vibrant scene; sophisticated yet not stuffy, as evidenced by the casually chic servers who sport denim with their olive green cashmere vests. From the window one can view an attentive maître d' checking on tables as tousle-haired J. Crew-ready servers deliver rough-hewn plates of tentacled octopus dotted with bright quenelles of coarsely minced herbs and almonds, scattered with citrus-infused slivers of Castelvetrano olives. We later found out that plate is a riff on a dish that earned Petrillo the Best Young Chef award at an international cooking competition in Milan this year.
Reservations are advisable, especially on a Gaillard event night, as Zero George books quickly. To enter, pass through the ornate wrought-iron gate on George Street into a manicured brick courtyard where perfectly aligned, sea-foam colored bicycles await to be used by hotel guests. Turn left and you'll see the carriage house door.
The reception desk shares space with the tiny kitchen itself, nary more than 100 square feet. Chances are the first person who will greet you is the chef himself, carefully plating a rainbow assortment of baby heirloom carrots slow cooked in lamb fat ($14), dusting a yakitori-style hamachi collar dish with pale green matcha tea powder ($21), or gently placing American sturgeon caviar atop center-cut deviled egg cups ($14).
Zero George may be the only fine-dining venue in Charleston where you walk straight into the chef's kitchen. It's tempting to linger and marvel at techniques most of us will never try ourselves, to listen to the steady "shhh" of octopus being pressure-cooked till tender, to watch a blow torch crisping the skin of the hamachi collar, to see three-minute duck eggs enveloped in little purses then dropped into the boiler for flash poaching — all on-the-spot preparations for awaiting diners.
Equally intriguing is what you'll see if you stop by during the daytime, long before dinner service. Food this complex takes prep, lots of prep, so guests or visitors popping through the kitchen/reception area at 9 a.m. might glimpse the chef or members of his small team pushing cascarecce pasta through an extruder with a wooden dowel for his homestyle shredded rabbit ragu ($18), a dish which also features the aforementioned three-minute duck eggs sourced from the same local rabbit farmer.
If you stop in around noon, you might find Petrillo himself rolling out a dough-like paste of white Spanish anchovies to be steamed, dehydrated, then cut into squares and puffed to a crisp in the fryer. The chips will top the roasted cauliflower "snack" ($14), providing a salty chicharron-crispy counterpoint to the juicy, meaty cauliflower steak, all served over a sweet-savory-spicy-creamy sauce of bloomed golden raisins, pimento espelette, and white chocolate.
Or maybe you'll observe him patiently pulverizing charred, stewed lobster head shells that have been caramelizing with a medley of vegetables. The addition of brandy, sherry, and a little cream helps form a lobster stock which will then reduce and be strained through aromatics to create the "crushed lobster shell sauce" that tops a roasted monkfish entrée ($36). It's a labor-intensive way to convey the essence of lobster in perfectly smooth, fluid form. You might even say it tastes more lobstery than lobster itself, because the shells pack stronger flavor than the crustacean's buttery meat. By crushing them, stewing them, intensifying the flavor, the end result is beautifully nuanced. Petrillo pours the sauce over mild monkfish nestled on a bed of both raw and glazed endives and fennel, and the raw slices provide a crisp bitterness that plays nicely with the rich, velvety sauce.
Perhaps you'll find Chef Petrillo pulling individual threads of braised veal breast, dehydrating them, then flash-frying them into a nest of fried-chicken-like crispiness to top roasted snapper ($38), a technique he learned from a Denmark chef in a remote 13th century castle. The veal frizzle adds a fun and mysterious element to a gorgeously conceived plate. Roasted local snapper sits on an ersatz risotto of diced white asparagus cooked al dente in its own juices and fortified with chopped black truffles, all encircled by charred, buttery turnip greens with a hint of garlic and thyme.
If you're lucky (or if you sign up for one of his cooking classes), you'll witness the chef creating what he calls "honeycomb" for his tres leches dessert ($12): akin to the mock-volcanic explosion achieved in high school science class is caused by blending baking soda with a thickened wildflower honey white caramel. The end result is a light, airy, brittle candy that balances the rich sweetness of the coconut-milk soaked sponge cake.
Whatever you chance upon in the open kitchen, whether it be octopus ink being baked into "salt" to top the deviled eggs, black truffles going into the Vitamix with miso and honey to form a rich umami base for the hamachi collar, or little corkscrew crosnes (Asian knotroot vegetables) pickled to crunchy effect for the snapper entrée, you'll be tempted to stay for dinner.
That evening, nod your respects to the chef as he ushers you through. Follow the hostess down creaking floorboards of original heart pine (watch that bottom step!). Pass through the tiny bar where craft cocktails feature locally made Red Harbor Rum ("Holy Fashioned" $13) or a chunky, hickory-smoked ice cube ("Smoke on the Water" $14) that imparts escalating smoke to the drink as it melts. Score a seat in the snug dining room or the private courtyard. Splurge and opt for the five-course tasting menu ($115) with pairings, or the truly ambitious nine-course tasting menu ($155). Or just cherry-pick.
The menu changes each week, typically on Tuesday or Wednesday, so if you're there mid-week, chances are the servers are still wrapping their heads around the intricacies of dishes that just came together moments before. Meanwhile the deviled eggs, crispy-sticky-sweet hamachi collar, and octopus (or seasonal versions of them) remain steady players. One week might bring scallop tartare or lamb belly, another beef Wellington with wild mushrooms, or pheasant with foie gras. The offerings may appear limited in number, but the creativity that goes into each dish's formulation and execution is anything but.
As for potential drawbacks, some might not love the modern techno-playlist (I heard one of my favorite Portishead songs in the mix) yet others might feel the musical choice adds a contemporary edge to a centuries-old building. My only disappointment was not seeing wines from the hotel owner's Virginia winery on the wine list depriving me of a viscous viognier or savory cab franc, though the California house white I had suited me just fine.
It's high time Zero Café reconsidered calling itself a café, for it has transformed into a formidable restaurant. There are a handful of other hotel restaurants in Charleston with great reputations, but Zero Cafe is clearly a gem all its own.